“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~ American Indian proverb.

"With all things and in all things, we are relatives." ~ Lakota (Sioux) saying.

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper

19 November 2014

In Praise of Yvette Cooper - for standing up against the paralysing ‘liberal’ consensus

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has helped ignite another of those increasingly regular cyclones of protest from our liberal-left publications about virtually any talk about immigration.

Cooper’s speech on ‘Labour’s approach to immigration’ addressed this sort of attitude head-on in her introductory passage, in which she said:

On the one hand we now have an arms race of rhetoric involving the Tories and UKIP over immigration. UKIP are exploiting peoples’ fears, fuelling anxiety and division, and David Cameron is racing to catch up. Between them they promote the idea that immigration is all and always bad, and should always be stopped.

On the other hand some liberal commentators seem to think talking about immigration at all is reactionary, and concern about immigration is irrational. They give the impression that immigration is all and always good, and should all be encouraged.

Both sides shout at each other. Neither are right. And most people don’t agree with either of them.”

This language isn’t unlike some of the arguments I have been making on this blog, though I think the initial rhetoric about an ‘arms race’ between the Tories and UKIP is overblown: I’ve got no love for either party but I’ve heard virtually nothing from either of them promoting the idea that immigration is all and always bad. This is the kind of lazy accusation that we repeat to each other to reassure ourselves and then end up actually believing.

Nevertheless, the next few things Cooper said were more interesting, challenging ‘liberal commentators’, their idea that concerns about immigration are ‘irrational’ and that all immigration is good. It’s nice to see this sort of argument coming out not just from Labour’s more thoughtful backbenchers but from senior Labour shadow cabinet members, in a feverish environment in which they have virtually no support from liberal-left media and institutions.

The rest of the speech mostly reiterated existing policies and positions, though there was another good, straightforward message on EU migration: ‘Fair movement, rather than free movement’. This is a significant statement in Labour and left-wing politics, and is not a world away from the position that David Cameron holds in trying to renegotiate in the EU, though with a more friendly attitude and no threat to withdraw in Labour’s case.

The liberal-left reaction has again been remarkable in its vituperation, anger - and what I might even suggest is a degree of desperation, that despite all their pleas, this issue has not gone away. The arguments used are the familiar, well-worn ones we’ve seen many times before

Since hardly anyone else is doing it, it’s worth going through some of the latest ones and showing how flimsy they are.

Let’s start with an editorial in The Independent newspaper: ‘Race to the Bottom on Immigration’, which damned Cooper, saying she “might have added that Labour has been so spooked by the arms race that it too has decided to join in”, adding for good measure that “immigration takes a regrettable place on every party’s agenda”.

Now undoubtedly every party is thinking about electoral dynamics and their chances heading up to the next election, but it seems just straightforwardly wrong to suggest this is purely cynical politics and just represents some sort of race to the bottom.

Labour MPs want to be re-elected and candidates want to get elected. More than eight out of 10 Britons now support a major tightening of rules on benefits and curbs on overall immigration (which is now running at a million new people net every four years, excluding illegals). Responding to real concerns is what democratic politicians do, and we should welcome it both within the Labour Party and in the media.

But those same-old counter arguments keep coming. Anoosh Chakelian of the New Statesman makes the same one, asking ‘Is Labour on the brink of an immigration arms race?’. She answers a straight ‘yes’, deriding “this country’s so-called immigration problem” and suggesting that politicians are blaming immigrants for “structural failings” like “housing shortages, low wages, and a damagingly flexible labour market, as well as anxieties about other cash-strapped public services”.

There are a couple of the most common conceits in dominant liberal-left opinion here. First up, that being concerned about immigration and its various aspects means ‘blaming immigrants’. This is dreadful and dishonest use of language that needs some evidence to back it up at least – but we never see it, or rather we generally infer the blame from...somebody not blaming. The second is that when it comes to supply and demand dynamics, only the side that doesn’t conflict with our political views matters. So housing shortages and prices going up has nothing to do with an extra four or five million people needing somewhere to live, low wages have nothing to do with extra competition from those prepared to work more for less, etc. 

Pointing out these things has nothing to do with blaming immigrants, but the fact that Labour and wider liberal-left opinion sees these basics as taboo should be as alarming as it is unsurprising. When those picked to disseminate opinion within your ranks start sacrificing truth to assertion and moralistic preening, you're in trouble.

The Guardian’s political editor Rafael Behr, while not referring directly to Cooper’s speech, wishes that Labour “would deal with resentment of immigration through policies that address the pressure on wages and services that new arrivals are said to exert, not by pretending the border can be sealed”.

This seems to be what Labour is basically doing, though it will be interesting to see what transpires from ‘fair movement’ rather than free movement within the EU. However, again, note the language from Behr– “are said to exert” as if it is some sort of myth that heightened demand doesn’t affect service availability. It's really quite remarkable.

Lastly here, Labour’s house news service LabourList carried a piece by Maya Goodfellow, entitled: ‘Miliband says it’s not prejudiced to talk about immigration – but that’s exactly what this immigration debate is built on’ - protesting that Labour MPs like David Blunkett and Frank Field and the leadership are “continuing to concede ground to Ukip and the Tories by accepting that immigration is a problem at all”.

This reminds me of a passage from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Saying that our immigration debate is ‘built on’ prejudice is both meaningless and wrong, as if there is a root cause of a debate like this, and it’s not the experiences of the real people that the likes of Frank Field and David Blunkett meet in their work as MPs but rather from their own prejudice – that they are basically racist. Either Maya Goodfellow is not honest enough to come out and say that or she doesn’t really believe it, in which case she shouldn’t be saying it indirectly.

All these articles and their opinions are significant not just in themselves but for what they say about where hegemony of opinion lies on the left. These are the house opinions of left publications, and they are all the same. I haven’t quoted from the Huffington Post UK, but its political director Mehdi Hasan put out a stream of vituperative tweets about Labour and immigration following Cooper’s speech.

Goodfellow’s article was also strikingly aggressive towards Ed Miliband for his own (very benign) rhetoric, in a way that you would be unlikely to see on any other subject except immigration.

Hegemony doesn’t give up its supremacy without a fight. For this hegemony though, it is notable that that the more its members fight and make a noise, they more they succeed in convincing and mobilising each other, but hardly anyone else.

For more on similar issues from this blog, see Immigration and the left page.

12 November 2014

How social liberalism’s triumph is turning to defeat

It has often been said that while the right has won the economic battles of the last few decades, the left (in its various liberal and pseudo-liberal forms) has conclusively won the social war. This seems incontrovertible in Western Europe and America at least.

I won’t go into the political triumph of economic liberalism here because: 1) it’s not what I’m talking about here and 2) it’s a bit technical and boring. But it’s good to reflect on social liberalism’s success, which is largely the story of a basic positive and righteous progression of politics from ‘not-so-good’ to ‘a lot better’. In Britain we are much better off, or perhaps better to say we are more civilised, for the reforms and changed social attitudes that have come with the triumph of social liberalism during the last Labour governments.

From free museums admission, the ‘right to roam’, free bus travel for pensioners and civil partnerships for gay couples, we have been freed up to live our lives more how we choose, and without any question of harming others. This is also the case with the decline in racist attitudes, the continuing rise of girls through the education system and women in the workplace, and the broad social acceptance of openly gay people as part of mainstream society.

The great 19th Century liberal John Stuart Mill would have been proud, for many of the battles he fought largely without success in his own time have now been won. Now, for the most part, sensible and genuine social liberals have gone home and turned their minds to other things, like gardening.

Yet what I would call ‘pseudo-liberal’ movements are still going strong and are if anything getting stronger in mainstream politics. You might see the success of the battle for gay marriage as an example of this – a reform that built on the existing civil partnerships and which increases freedom but also stepped on the established institution of marriage and changed its meaning, causing some people quite considerable concern and offence in the process.

Gay marriage is perhaps a relatively small ‘issue’ and has not been mightily contentious, but I think it is indicative of how those who now carry the flame of ‘rights’ – traditionally a liberal term – have jumped over the fence of liberalism by seeking not just to increase freedom of people they claim to represent, but to reduce freedom of others – for example by enforced diversity quotas in certain favoured professions.

This sort of authoritarian social liberalism is nothing particularly new; it was bubbling away throughout the last Labour governments, but now it is pretty much the only ‘liberal’ game in town on the left – and it is completely dominant within the present Labour Party. Emboldened by past successes, strengthened in their organisation and full to the brim with self-righteousness, these extreme elements have claimed the mantle of progress and taken hold of mainstream leftist politics.

As a result, the left is now on the wrong side of pretty much every major existential issue now facing Britain. We don’t have a story to tell about the future of the country and our politics, except of more change through more immigration and more of the Orwellian ‘Equalities’ agendas which protect certain people from the consequences of wrongdoing, while not facing up to the rise of an intolerant and increasingly confident Islamist politics.

The change in outlook and attitude and the liberal reforms promised by a new Labour government in 1997 put the left firmly on the side of the good, and going with public opinion not against it. The picture is very different now.

For more on similar themes, see Identity politics and the left page.

23 October 2014

A letter to potential UKIP voters – from the liberal establishment

Dear potential UKIP voter,

We wanted to let you know that we understand you and your concerns. We have been looking at the polling and it proves that you are all white, male, ageing, ignorant, hypocritical, working class racists and losers.

This makes us feel very smug and superior, and we thought we would write you a letter to show how things really work around here so you might get with the programme.

Firstly, it seems you have not read the memo which says no one is allowed to speak truth if it is the wrong truth. It has been decided that all immigration is beneficial both socially and economically, so any evidence that some immigrants or communities are causing social problems or abusing the welfare system must be suppressed immediately or detached from any association with immigration. We are also seeking to establish that it is people like you who are the real cause of social problems and who abuse welfare, so it has been necessary for us to make allusions and associations of these bad things with the white working classes. This may not be fair, but life isn’t fair: just so that you know.

Secondly, we thought you should be aware that we have an formidable coalition waged against you, ranging from far left fruitcakes and Greens to shiny New Labour types and Conservative liberals, Lib Dems, academics, and also a business elite that wants to import unlimited cheap foreign labour without having to move abroad. (They also think democracy is a terrible drag, but so do the rest of us if we’re honest!)

Thirdly, all positive associations involving UKIP have been banned with immediate effect. It has become clear that rather a lot of you out there really don’t like us, so we’re going to have to play dirty. Thankfully, some of you are genuinely racist and these are the ones we have chosen to represent you, so watch out.

If you are not white-skinned yet are attracted to UKIP or some of its messages, what on earth are you doing not conforming to the stereotype? You are an aberration and we laugh (uncomfortably) at you; but beware our attack dogs. They don’t mess around and are coming to get you for betrayal – as a race traitor. As it says in the memo, ethnic minorities should get into line and do what they are told, even though you are almost as likely to be concerned about immigration as white people. Failure to comply could have serious consequences on your social status: be warned.

If you have white skin and are English by birth, you should really have understood by now that you are not allowed to exist as a community. ‘Communities’ are foreign or immigrant-based, not ‘English’. If you gather in groups of only white-skinned people, some of us will have to ‘call you out’; even more so if you are mostly male. Gatherings of this kind are discouraged and will meet with the full force of liberal opinion, however illiberal that may be.

Now we need to get on to the subject of ‘home’. It has been decided that feeling ‘at home’ is irrational and has no meaning in a world of fast change, facts, logical arguments and carefully-chosen economic data. This is progress, as you will recognise if you are not stupid enough not to understand the data. In any case, you must come to terms with this improvement in your circumstances and recognise that the place where you live becoming less familiar and less welcoming for you is not really that important. Indeed it is progress.

If you persist in not welcoming these changes, you will either have to be re-educated or maybe we can push you off into a corner where no-one will notice you. It is an open secret really so we may as well admit it: you are of no use and no value to our world of change; you are expendable and many among us think we should basically abandon you.

For, far from being nice and liberal as many of us claim to be, ours is a harsh, unyielding belief system that demands everyone changes to make way for our brave new world. This ‘new world of change’ is inevitable, like Tony Blair has said - and also like the Marxists used to proclaim about their Communist Utopia. 

One of Blair’s former speechwriters John McTernan said it best, “There is nothing wrong with Ukip voting parts of England that a solid dose of migration wouldn't fix. Nothing.” If you live in one of these areas that have been voting UKIP but has not yet seen large-scale immigration locally, you either must be racist or have not realised it is illogical to be concerned about immigration, even if you have seen and heard of the effects elsewhere. It’s a bit like the Great Plains Indians of North America being afraid about the waves of white settlers coming from the East: their fears were irrational; all they achieved by resisting was to hold back progress and resist the inevitable.

Like them, you don’t fit and you don’t belong. This is a culture war, and you have the misfortune to have become the enemy. The people that are most against you are not immigrants of course – they are too busy establishing themselves, and in many cases sympathise with you. Rather your enemy is us: a political, business and media elite that makes its money and retains its power by going along with the way things are done – with progress. We can’t stop the world and get off; we are on a runaway train, and it's about time you got back on. 

The 'Liberal' Establishment

N.B. Just to clarify that I as the writer of this am not a UKIP supporter: indeed I share many of the general concerns about them, not least that they are basically a right wing party. If anything though I am more concerned with the way the dominant liberal-left and wider liberal Establishment is so aggressively marginalising and disparaging the concerns of people who might vote for UKIP. This alienates me and drags me away from my natural home in politics. It also increases the intensity of the ‘Culture Wars’ in our country, which polarise opinion for the benefit of no one, except perhaps the headbangers on either side.

24 September 2014

Of drift and doubt: on Ed Miliband’s conference speech

Over the last few years of Ed Miliband’s leadership I have become used to being rather impressed with his annual conference speech and then finding myself gradually losing faith as the months have drifted by with little or no follow-up: indeed with little of interest emanating from Labour.

His latest speech yesterday – the last at conference before the 2015 General Election – felt like that whole year’s cycle compressed into an hour. Early promise – with a few interesting and engaging ideas – was followed by a whole load of drift interspersed with a kind of paint-by-numbers approach to pleasing the activists, notably by mentioning the NHS every few minutes.

Ed Miliband making his 2014 Conference speech
As the speech drifted, so I drifted and started thinking about other stuff, like: What’s for dinner? Maybe my toenails need cutting? Is anyone on Twitter being more interesting about the speech than the speech itself? (Answer: ‘Yes’). It wasn’t surprising to find out later that Miliband himself had forgotten whole chunks of what he was meant to say in the course of speaking – on the economy and immigration, perhaps the two most important issues of the coming campaign.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas and policies sounded pretty good. I particularly liked this section towards the beginning:

I’m not talking about a different policy or a different programme. I’m talking about something much bigger. I’m talking about a different idea, a different ethic for the way our country succeeds.

“You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn’t care about me. Our politics doesn’t listen. Our economy doesn’t work and they’re not wrong, they’re right and this Labour Party is going to put it right.”

This is the first time I’ve heard Miliband use the word ‘ethic’, and I think he’s exactly right to use it – for real transformation in society means a transformation of how we all behave – and that means attention to ethics. He followed it up with some powerful passages about how “a small elite” in our society basks in prosperity while many of us have effectively been told, “you’re on your own”: ordinary working people, young people without privileges, small businesses, the vulnerable and also in politics. “The deck is stacked and the game is rigged in favour of those who have all the power.”

This was good stuff, but questions and doubts were already starting to bubble up from my battered brain, and they came out properly when Miliband kept repeating how this all came together under the word...’together’. He said: “Together says that we can’t have some people playing under different rules, everybody’s got to play under the same rules.”

I couldn’t agree more, but this is not what Labour does.

As I have been writing here ever since I started writing here, Labour as an institution has fixed itself on a path whereby everybody definitely doesn’t play under the same rules. We grant special favours to women, ethnic minorities and to a lesser extent gay people and those who work in manual occupations – the latter an attempt to gather in ‘the working class’ to be part of our systems of favouritism.

This way of managing who goes where features not just in our internal party processes, but in our past and future programmes for government: if you come from a favoured group you get special favours under Labour. This is the opposite of everybody playing under the same rules, and it is also a negation of ethics which can have dreadful consequences, as with local Labour establishments turning a blind eye to industrial-scale child sexual exploitation by Asian men in Rotherham and Rochdale and other places.

Miliband said that the Tories “rig the system for a powerful few”, but we rig the system too – not just structurally but culturally – and to pretend we don’t is hypocritical.

I find it difficult to get angry or resentful at Ed Miliband though. He seems like a decent bloke, and I have no reason to doubt that he meant what he said here. I just wonder if he is totally in control of things. He seems to have no great allies in the party and therefore relies on strictly conditional support from Labour’s most powerful interest groups: notably the unions, women’s lobby, ethnic minority (BME/BAME) lobby and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) lobby.

This means transactional politics: dishing out favours in return for support. One of the moments of his speech that most sticks in my head is when he announced the former Eastenders actor and MEP Michael Cashman as “our envoy on LGBT rights all round the world”. This is a gesture of the base, for the base and by the base; I don’t see how Cashman can achieve anything in such a role, and I imagine most folks watching at home don’t even know what LGBT means.

I liked Miliband’s stating a commitment to the environment and global efforts to combat climate change, though this did raise more questions than answers, like: how do you reconcile economic growth and plans to build millions more new homes and increasing airport capacity with reducing carbon emissions and environmental blight? I’m afraid that is a circle that cannot be squared, but it’s another thing from which we turn away out of political convenience.

There was more that I liked in the speech: some good attention to the NHS and the plan for a mansion tax (though Andrew Neil on the BBC sent Labour spokespeople sprawling one after the other in their attempts to explain how this would work).

But as Miliband went on, his speech regressed. It became more and more a play to the base of activists rather than to the people out in the country, but even in doing that it drifted terribly. Many voices from in and around Labour and outside have been withering about it, which is a little unfair – but not that much.

The most cutting thing I have read about Miliband is an article from the Times columnist Jenni Russell (a former friend of his, and a member of the sensible but interesting left), published on 3rd July this year. It offered a pointed vignette of a party in the City of London to which Miliband turned up when most guests had left, got collared by a couple of drunks and had one aide who deserted him and another, “a youngster”, who was left flapping around not knowing what to do because she didn’t know anyone there.

This is the basics of politics, and it’s startling how after four years as leader, Miliband is nowhere near having mastered it.

Russell also pointed to how Miliband and his office operate: 

Nobody outside the leader’s office has a good word to say about it. It is secretive and unresponsive, internally riven, bad at building alliances either inside or outside the party, and obsessed with hoarding its own power rather than building Labour’s influence.” She added: “One senior Labour insider told me how depressed he is by what seems to be an arrogant indifference from both office and leader to other people or to challenging ideas”.

Now, say what you like about New Labour, but this is quite a contrast to the way its inner circle operated. The late Philip Gould for example emphasised how there were plenty of differing, strong voices in the New Labour hierarchy:

 Successful campaigns are built...on the synthesis of contrasting ideas and contrasting policies. One of [Tony] Blair’s great strengths as leader is that he understands this, and is able to make it work. He wants the best and he wants ideas and strategies to be tested and debated. He is only confident in an idea or a person if it has come through the fire. This is as true for himself as for others; he distrusts people who agree with him, he wants to be taken on.”

If the policies that Miliband and other Shadow Cabinet members outlined at Conference have not been put through the fire (and there are plenty of signs this is indeed the case) then things do not augur well for Labour in the coming campaign and in government if we manage to squeeze back there.

All of this feeds back into nagging doubts of people who want to support Labour – that we are not really serious and do not have enough confidence in ourselves: that we do not want to win enough to deserve winning.

With the Tories and Liberal Democrats in a similarly poor state, it looks like being a thoroughly depressing election campaign – and that is from someone who detests them to begin with.

For more on similar topics, see The Labour Party and other party politics page.